Brothers and more...
This great, sprawling Rabelasian novel follows a pair of brothers as they grow up in a Chinese village that undergoes all the future shocks of the nation’s post-revolutionary history and whose inhabitants swing from one mob extreme to the next. Of the two, “Baldy” Li is the one whom the nation’s turn toward consumerist excess will reward most handsomely, even though he spends the bulk of his young life as an outcast after being caught peeping in the women’s public toilet. His brother, Song Gang, takes a more dignified path through life, though not surprisingly ends up not quite as prepared for the raw venality of the nation’s capitalist turn as Baldy, who had been one of the town’s favorite scapegoats during the Cultural Revolution. Hua’s novel was a bestseller in China, and deservedly so, given his gift for mixing historical sweep and classical Chinese literary allegories with low villager humor (toilet jokes and kicking people when they’re down feature heavily here). It’s a cliché of the highest order to say that Brothers relates history on a personal scale, but it is nevertheless true. Also, Hua does so with an unpretentious manner rare to novels with this much scope and ambition. This is history as a dirty, sad joke. Chris Barsanti
The Children’s Book
One of the many protagonists of Byatt’s labyrinthine, addictive novel is a writer of children’s books who does something that people find absolutely delightful—she keeps a set of books marked with her children’s names, inside each of which she pens fantasy tales for them which have no end. Her children ultimately find this less enchanting. Set in late 19th and early 20th century England, The Children’s Book is a poisoned letter of sorts to the great flowering of fantastical whimsy amidst the neo-Bohemian intelligentsia living in and just outside London. Much of Byatt’s swarm of characters, from writers to puppeteers to arrivistes and potters, seem intent on rediscovering the beauty and magic in their industrializing world, and the gilded but precise language with which Byatt describes their efforts and entanglements is nothing short of breathtaking. There is a sour edge to this glittering epic, though—a nation of dilettantes so enraptured by fantasies like Peter Pan hurls itself with just as much abandon into the abattoir of the Great War. Chris Barsanti
It seems there is no shortage of great poets turned essayists that have emerged from Poland and translated into English in the past 40 years. The Noble Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz immediately comes to mind, and then there is the wide recognition and praise of both Zbigniew Herbert and Adam Zagajewski. To this extraordinary list of writers we can now add Andrzei Stasiuk. Stasiuk’s book, Fado, is a combination of travel book and personal essays, a potable portmanteau packed with telling incident and well-observed detail. The essays evoke in lyrical, almost sensual prose the forgotten and ignored small towns and villages of Central and Eastern Europe and some of the cultural and political problems they now face after such a long absence from the mainstream of Western liberal values. There is also something wistful, the equivalent of a long sigh, when Stasiuk looks back and writes about the past, whether it is his boyhood on a farm or abandoned WWI graveyards. No doubt his previous job as poet has served him well as a prose writer. Fado is a collection of clean and analytically sharp essays bound together with the ironic and generous voice of Stasiuk. Carmelo Militano
The Fire Gospel
What if someone discovered plausible, historical proof that Jesus Christ was simply a man, who lived and died like any other man, whose last words were “Please, somebody, please finish me!” instead of “It is finished”? And what if he then presented that proof to the world? Michel Faber’s The Fire Gospel takes this premise in his retelling of the Prometheus myth. The book is part of a series, The Myths, published by Canongate, reimaginings of the ancient myths by noted authors like Jeannette Winterson (Atlas and Heracles), Margaret Atwood (Odysseus and Penelope), Victor Pelevin (Theseus and the Minotaur), and many others. I like Michel Faber a lot. (Born in the Netherlands, he lives in Scotland and writes in English.) His bawdy, Dickensian Crimson Petal and the White is a stunning tour de force sustained over more than 900 pages, and Under the Skin is a highly literary arabesque combining elements of science fiction and horror with the pace of a thriller. His prose, there as here, is crisp and pure, never fussy or fuzzy. Christopher Guerin
A Gate at the Stairs
George Santayana wrote that “everything in nature is lyrical in its ideal essence, tragic in its fate, and comic in its existence”, and that’s a pretty good summation of the genius of Lorrie Moore, whose novel, A Gate at the Stairs is at once gruesome, tragic, and hilarious. The novel is narrated by a barely post-adolescent farmer’s daughter, Tassie Keltjin, who works as a nanny. Tassie, a hyper-aware type, notes on first meeting her boss, Sarah, that “(t)he hollows of her cheeks were powdered darkly, as if with the pollen of a tiger lily. Her hair was… dyed the fashionable bright auburn of a ladybug. Her earrings were buttons of deepest orange… and her lips maroonish brown. She looked like a highly controlled oxidation experiment.” Late in the novel, Sarah chastises Tassie for singing “I Been Working on the Railroad” to Sarah’s mixed-race adoptive baby: “There’s just two things I’m worried about with that: the grammar and the use of slave labor.” But Sarah is more than a figure of fun in this story, which also concerns Tassie’s relationship with her Afghanistan-bound brother, and her encounter with a jihadi. This is a post-9/11 and post-Iraq War book, but not polemically so; Moore’s points about our distracted, fearful, and neurotic culture are ruefully funny without being pointlessly bitter. As Tassie notes, “I had a habit… biting into the bruised spots of apples and cherries, the places under the skin where they had made their own wine, sweet and brown”. Moore is like that: She probes the dark spots, but discovers something complex and intoxicating underneath. Michael Antman
Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing
Rob Spillman, ed.
This is a collection of, by and about modern Africa, of writers and characters negotiating their way through timeworn realities and new possibilities. The concluding selection, a short story by Ivan Vladislavic, shows how difficult that negotiation can be, as a discarded piece created for a South African museum exhibit bears the power to elicit reactions based on age-old, discredited power dynamics. It’s as if to say that no matter how far they’ve come as people and as nations, in Africa the past is never really, completely gone, at least not yet. These stories evoke the continent’s ancestral essence—from the scent of the vegetation to the sturdiness of its folk traditions—and are juxtaposed against stories in which the saga of the individual in an urban mecca reflects new tensions arising in post-millennial Africa. Perhaps the strongest theme emerging from Gods and Soldiers is that there’s no singular “voice of Africa”, no overarching cosmology to unify the continent’s literature. But that’s a great thing, in that more and more writers are finding their places within our global literary landscape (a collection of nonfiction reportage, essays and memoirs would be a worthy follow-up). We’ll still be reading many of these writers, and tracking how their finely cultivated perspectives view the current state of African affairs, long after the world moves on to the next cultural hotspot. Mark Reynolds